The Thing I Like About …

The Piano: when Baines says Ada looks tired.

Ada has been obliged to leave her home and marry – through the mail – a man she’s never met. She’s brought her young daughter over the ocean on a rickety boat to an unsettled land. She has been left on the beach, and has no idea when her husband will be picking her up. She makes a tent out of a hoop skirt to shield herself and her daughter from the wind, and they wait for hours to see what the next chapter of their lives will be.

Her husband Stewart finally arrives with a team of servants to carry Ada’s belongings. He busies himself deciding which of Ada’s things will be carried to the house and which will not. He discovers his new family in their makeshift tent, and, because he knows she is mute, shouts at her at first as though she were deaf. Eventually he accepts that she can hear him, but he still looks put off, and says to Baines, “She’s small; I never thought she’d be small,” and, “What do you think? She’s stunted; that’s one thing.”

George Baines says, “She looks tired.”

In the context of the film, this exchange illustrates the relationships of the three main characters – Baines sees Ada as a person, while Stewart sees Ada as a product he has purchased, and Ada is silent. In the context of the film, we are encouraged to dislike Stewart in his coldness and his unwillingness to see Ada’s humanity.

Outside of the film, however, Stewart’s notions and mindset and actions are a lot more like our typical behaviour than we would probably like to admit.

It isn’t that we don’t think other people are people. It’s that we forget that other people are people. We imagine that other people owe something to us – to be a certain physical appearance, to have certain opinions, to behave in certain ways that meet our needs and desires. We imagine a “perfect” partner – spouse, friend, colleague, family member, child – and we attach our goals and identity to finding these “things” we decided we wanted; when others don’t match what we imagined, we don’t just feel disappointed or let down. We feel attacked, as though the other person has actually hurt us by being himself or herself instead of the “perfect” thing we “purchased” in our heads.

Ironically, we even tolerate unacceptable behaviour – family-devastating drug addictions, physical violence, emotional abuse – if the person offering that behaviour falls into enough of the “goal” categories – in finances, in physical attractiveness, in social standing, etc. We prefer others who allow us to tick off each item on our list of “what we expected”, even if they’re accompanied by items that hurt us. Basically, “perfect” doesn’t mean “good” but means instead that another human being has met our goals and supported our notions.

And of course all too often we’re Ada: silent in the face of others’ opinions and actions, but underneath imagining the life we would prefer, and acting out from this subconscious longing in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others. We sublimate ourselves in hopes of garnering the “perfection” we want … but Ada doesn’t really find the love and independence and happiness she seeks until she starts talking – through her piano, through expression of emotions, through active decision-making.

Interestingly, Ada’s first true communication with Stewart after she finds her voice is to forgive him – not with words like “I forgive you” but with statements about her own feelings rather than accusations about Stewart’s inadequacies. Once she decides to use her own voice, his actions and mistakes just don’t really matter to her anymore, and she simply moves forward.

What kind of “perfection” from others do you seek? When you think of others, do you think, “Pretty, smart, pleasant, angry, stupid, ugly, etc.”? Or do you think, “Happy, sad, tired, afraid, peaceful, etc.”? Do you think about how they’re affecting you, or how they are affected? Neither way is wrong … but if we only ever interact from the first mindset and never include the second one, then we aren’t ever really seeing the other person as someone separate from ourselves. We’re never seeing them the way we want to be seen by others. We’re focusing on our expectations at the expense of connection – the connection we all want when we make our little “perfection” goals in the first place.

Throughout the film, Stewart seems “overbearing, controlling, sexist, shallow” … but in the end – after everyone has been able to see each other as human beings, after everyone has spoken with his or her own voice for their own happiness, after everyone has accepted that others aren’t there to meet expectations – in the end, Stewart just seems … sad and lonely.

We might all be a lot more like Stewart than we would care to be, but unlike him – a fictional character who must learn his lessons the hard way – we can just turn around and do something else.

We can turn around and really see someone else.

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